‘I became conscious, and strangely proud, that I had Muslim friends’



Manjula LalTHE BOYS selling evening newspapers climbed on the bus, their sales chant of “masjid destroyed…” sounding distinctly medieval. The picture on the front page spoke a million words. The date was 6 December 1992 and the mosque destroyed was at Ayodhya.

My reaction came through a miasma of pain, first through the brain, then more viscerally. The timing was a gobsmacker. The previous night my mother, visiting me in Delhi, had collapsed in an eye clinic where she went to seek a second opinion on why her vision was blurring. We wasted precious hours at the private clinic before they sent us to Safdarjung Hospital, ambulance sirens wailing, where we were told no neurologist was available. And so onto RML Hospital where the doctors’ expression told me what would come to pass, although in the clear light of day they started mouthing polite words of hope.

We all know our parents will die one day — some of us consider it a better option than a parent facing the death of a child. But somehow, we never thought the Babri masjid would be destroyed. Communal riots happened in some other part of the city, they were triggered by feudal, uneducated people with primordial loyalties. But the Demolition changed all that.

Curiously, I became aware, and strangely proud, that I had Muslim friends. Suddenly, I saw myself and them as secular, just as joining a school suddenly transforms you into a student, and reading pink papers converts you into a consumer. I remembered that my best friend at school had been Huma Raza, although till then I had never given her religion a thought. I remembered how she had coaxed me into making a reluctant stage appearance as Saleh the servant, resplendent in moustache and fez, while the rest of them decked up prettily in sequinned ghaghras. What you do for your friends…

There was a surreal quality about those 15 days in December. My father-in-law, 82, had his fourth heart attack and died on 8 December in Noida. I was spending my nights at RML Hospital, numb with cold and unnamed dread, shivering in my sleeping bag in the corridor, my thoughts zigzagging between the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the secular ideal. The collapse of my family was imminent, but that was not yet a certainty — it would be signalled by the monitor that showed a straight line on 12 December. At which point there were other exasperating realities to deal with, like the doctors’ refusal to tell me anything definitive till a ‘male member’ of the family presented himself. Hello, which world are we living in? Certainly not the one Chacha Nehru sold us with his fiery rhetoric.

As far as friends go, the Demolition became some kind of Partition II. Not on the border, but in our hearts. Every Eid, I wrestle with myself about whether I should wish Shahira, who never prefaces her monthly phone calls to me with the usual Hi, but plunges straight into the conversation — like you would do with a sister. My atheistic “principle” that I don’t acknowledge religious festivals has become shaky, now that I know she and other friends observe the fast.

I also remember with a sense of shame how, after the Delhi blasts of 2008, Raghib wistfully looked at my black T-shirt and said, “I don’t wear black any more because the police tend to stop us for questioning.” That was when I forgave him for saying earlier, petulantly, “If they give us Kashmir, I’ll go live there.”

“They” and “us”. Still trying to love each other against all political odds. Finally, I achieved closure on the subject when, two months ago, Raghib described to me how his mother died. The collapse. The wail of the siren. The private clinic. Then RML Hospital, where the only neurologist in town seems to be available. In the end, like the mosque, we are all dust.

Illustration: Samia Singh


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